I have always had an ambivalent relationship with Parashat Korach. His rebellion strikes at the heart of how we view leadership and the authority of leadership. In a world without deference, particularly at a moment when political leadership in the UK seems to be in disarray, it does not seem so unreasonable for Korach to question who exactly elected Moses and Aaron. Where does their authority lie, to whom are they accountable? “
All the community are holy and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
It’s a valid question isn’t it? In Exodus 19:6, God tells Moses: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. If we are a kingdom of priests and if we are all holy, then why do we need hierarchies? Why can’t we all share leadership? In a Progressive Jewish world where we no longer have priests and in which we all consider ourselves holy then why should anyone raise themselves above the others?
I belong to a lay-led egalitarian Chavura which means monthly on Shabbat mornings. The weekly parashah that happens to be read on that particular Shabbat varies from year to year, but for some reason, in July, we nearly always end up reading Korach. It’s become dear to us, because we feel equally holy to each other and because we instinctively feel that God dwells among us and we don’t need a Leader to tell us what we should be doing or how we should be doing it. When we discuss Korach, there’s usually someone who takes his side.
In the biblical narrative, however, God’s response is unambiguous and somewhat shocking. God wants to annihilate the whole community for this rebellion. Moses and Aaron say: Don’t be angry with the whole community, just because one member sins. God then tells everyone to isolate the rebels, the ground opens up underneath them and swallows them alive, together with their households. Then, for good measure, a fire consumes all their followers. It is an apocalyptic scene – absolute destruction not only for the rebels but also for their wives and children. It seems, frankly, like disproportionate punishment.
Korach, however, is not really a man of the people. He is Moses and Aaron’s cousin, and a Levite, already given the responsibility for the maintenance of the Sanctuary. What he is after, is power for himself. This is not a popular rebellion – it is an attempted coup. The two can be mistaken – they both involve dissatisfaction with the status quo – but a coup is much more likely to end in a new kind of dictatorship; same form, different face at the top.
And Korach and Moses are not talking about the same kind of authority. Moses’ authority is divine. He is a channel for God’s will. He says: “By this you will know that God sent me to do all these things; it was not from my heart.” Korach, on the other hand, and his co-conspirators Dathan and Abiram, are talking about secular, political authority, and in particular I think, are using their elite positions to try to get more power.
The problem for modern readers is that the God who backs Moses in this narrative is so authoritarian, and pretty brutal. It’s clear that Moses has to assert his authority which is consistently challenged throughout the narrative, but it’s not so clear why God’s punishment needs to be so destructive and so absolute.
When we get stuck on the literal level of the words, it’s worth looking deeper. What does Korach represent? Pirkei Avot 5:17 says: “Any dispute carried on for the sake of Heaven will in the end be established…..what dispute is that which is for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And that which is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Korach and all his congregation”. There is something about the way in which Korach engages in debate that is not right.
Korach is seen as a “ba’al machloket”, literally a master of dispute, someone who knows they are right and who is so certain of their views that they see no need to engage in debate or to tolerate anyone with a different opinion. This is Korach – the ideologue, the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists often say they are radicals, that they are in favour of social change, that they are on the side of the disadvantaged. But unless democracy and debate are enshrined in the revolution, the new status quo may be worse than the old.
The 18th century Hasidic teacher Meshulam Feibush takes a more generous view of Korach. He said: “Even though Korach possessed both intelligence and the holy spirit, a spark of envy remained within him. “ In his view, Korach just could not conceive of Moses acting without self-interest. And it never occurred to him, that he himself might be acting out of self-aggrandisement. For Feibush, this is an inherent risk for anyone who thinks they might be the right person to do anything or lead anyone. It takes great self-awareness and self-knowledge to be a good Jew, never mind a good leader. We always need to watch out for our egos. The Torah doesn’t always demonstrate how things should be, but it nearly always shows us how things really are. If we believe we are right the whole time and refuse to engage in true debate, we are headed for destruction, and if, with that fanaticism, we try to claim leadership, we can bring down a community too. We need to spend more time examining our own motives and less time judging others.
After the apocalypse, the rebels’ fire-pans are turned into plating for the altar in the Sanctuary. It was a reminder that only the priests could offer incense. But as we now no longer have a priestly caste, and in the words of Exodus, we are a kingdom of priests, then perhaps it means something else. Perhaps it means that it is possible to transform our ambition, our rigidity, our certainty into something holy, and that sometimes we have to change in order to avoid disaster.